by Peter Ruicci (Independent Media)
There were certainly players who worked as hard as Andrew Desjardins in the 50-season history of the Soo Greyhounds.
But very few who worked harder.
The Lively, Ont., native was not overly skilled. He was a 15th-round draft choice – an afterthought for most Ontario Hockey League franchises – in the 2002 Priority Selections.
Sault native Tyler Kennedy, who went on to a lengthy NHL career, most notably with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was the Hounds first-round choice (16th overall) that year.
Now 35 and playing hockey in Mannheim, Germany, Desjardins admits he never could have imagined an NHL career that spanned over 400 games and culminated with a Stanley Cup championship as a member of the 2014-2015 Chicago Blackhawks.
“As a 15th-rounder, I never thought that far ahead,” said Desjardins, who played both the wing and centre and wound up skating four seasons for the Hounds, producing 48 goals and 65 assists in 254 career games. “I always had the childhood dream to play in the NHL, but at the time I was drafted, I don’t think I had any idea of how hard the road is and the work that it takes to get there.”
A year after he was drafted, Desjardins made the Greyhounds as a 17-year-old and remembers “going through a lot of ups and downs and grinding it out day after day.”
He also talked of adjusting to being away from home and being a fringe player, fighting for ice time as an OHL rookie.
The experience “taught me a lot about myself,” he said. “Thankfully, I had a great billet family (Paul and Renee Wysynski) that made things a lot easier for me.”
Under head coach Marty Abrams, the Soo finished the 2003-2004 season with a 30-34-3-1 record and Desjardins, playing sparingly in 55 games, produced three goals and six assists. Abrams lasted just nine games in his second season, fired, in part, due to the team getting off to a 2-6-1-0 start.
Craig Hartsburg returned to the fold, leading the club to a 31-19-8-1 mark the rest of the way. That was good for first place in the West Division. Desjardins began to establish himself as a strong defender who successfully executed the Hounds’ systems. He finished with 17 goals and 17 assists in 68 games.
After winning the first three games of their Western Conference quarter-final with the Windsor Spitfires, the Greyhounds dropped four straight.
One season later, Desjardins posted a 12-16-28 stat line, establishing himself as a top-flight penalty-killer on a Hounds club which finished 29-31-3-5, losing in four straight to London in the first round of the playoffs.
As an overage in ’06-’07, Desjardins was one of his team’s best players. He was a solid contributor in all three zones, posting a 16-26-42 stat line, while scoring three short-handed goals and four game-winners. Soo wound up with a mark of 37-23-1-7.
The Greyhounds eliminated Saginaw in six games in the Western Conference quarter-finals. Desjardins had never been beyond the first round of the OHL playoffs and one of the fondest recollections of his time here was setting up his close buddy, Brandon MacLean, for the overtime winner in a 4-3, Game 6 victory.
“The memories that come to mind most about my time in the Sault are the great times I had with my teammates on and off the ice,” he added. “I established life-long friendships.”
Unfortunately for the Greyhounds, the ’06-’07 club lost a conference semifinal to London in seven games.
“Playing for the Hounds was one of the biggest stepping stones in my career,” Desjardins said. “I had great coaches in Craig and (assistant coach) Denny (Lambert) to help me transition into the OHL and to also prepare me for professional hockey.”
Playing for Hartsburg, who had been an NHL head coach with Chicago and Anaheim at that point and had also won the Canadian Hockey League coach-of-the-year award with the Guelph Storm, was “very special,” Desjardins added. “Right from the start, when he came into the rink he had a presence.”
Hartsburg was fervent and passionate, Desjardins recalled.
“Intense but fair,” he added. “He definitely got the best out of me.”
Despite having to make it as a free agent, Desjardins played 281 games in the minor leagues, eventually making the San Jose Sharks and skating in 17 NHL games during the ’10-’11 campaign.
He played for both the Sharks and Blackhawks, establishing himself as a hard-working, defensive specialist while also posting a combined stat line of 23-41-64 in 408 games.
During the Hawks ’14-’15 Stanley Cup campaign, Desjardins was a regular in the team’s playoff lineup, contributing a goal and three assists in 21 games.
Now in his fifth season with the Mannheim Eagles of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), the top hockey league in Germany, Desjardins also won a championship there in 2019.
He spoke of growing up and wanting to win a Stanley Cup and how he eventually achieved that goal.
But in Mannheim’s title run, he was more of an integral part of the team.
“It’s different being relied upon to put the puck in the net,” Desjardins noted.
He also spoke of how much he and wife Mandy, and their children, son Ames and daughter Blake, love living in Germany.
“The hockey is great and we’re really happy here.”